French racism challenged as youths riot

Paris Deaths Highlight Black Quest for Equality

Two Black teenagers dead on the streets. Paris suburbs on fire with Molotov cocktails. Residents accusing the President in the Élysée Palace of discrimination and neglect. The riotous events in Villiers-le-Bel, Paris, are a stark reminder of the urban conflicts of 2005 when Nicholas Sarkozy, then minister of the interior, sought to eradicate  unruly ghetto youth he called  “scum” (racaille).

Unheard voices of discontent
But in all their reports and speculation about the “causes”, reporters for Le Monde, Agence France Presse and mainstream newspapers have totally ignored the simmering discontent and legitimate grievances expressed by Black French communities in the aftermath of the conflicts.

The challenge to French racism
In 2006, francophone and international Black scholars affirmed the right of alienated Black youth to force the pace of urban change. Remarkably, an alliance of cultural elites, community leaders and youth of the banlieues declared that “French society – la belle république — must join in a new debate on what it means to be Black and French in the Land of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, as I report in my just published study, Pillars of Change – Racism, youth and France, a guide for social change.

Moral crisis in French society
The study, which grew out of the Contemporary Black World seminar at UNESCO Paris 2006, under the patronage of Black Writers and Artists and the African Cultural community, Paris, points to popular racism and its effects. “France is in a moral crisis” said Black advocates. Peter Lozes, head of CRAN, the Representative Council of Black Associations revealed the results of independent polls: “half the people of colour in France say they’ve suffered discrimination in every day life”. Heavy-handed police actions and unfair stop-and-searches are often cause for complaints.

Horror at the death of local teenagers in a crash with a police patrol car, reflects the insecurity, isolation and frustration of youth in the banlieues, the poor neighbourhoods with minority populations that ring French cities. In Pillars of Change, Brima Conteh, Paris’s best known human rights activist and director of the social action group, Diaspora Afrique, said “These troubles [in 2005] are nothing new. We have known how damaging life is for Black families”.

New policies must be introduced 
The proposed solutions to discrimination and isolation from the wider society and economy are long over due and equally valid today. First, get the facts right about the Black African, Arab and ethnic “rioters”. The majority of the so-called “immigrant youth” are French-born and therefore citizens by right of jus soli; others, of Caribbean extraction, are legally entitled children of time-honoured French West Indian citizens.

Second, new policies are required for a massive investment in affordable housing and first time “spring board” jobs for the young unemployed. Moreover, my Pillars of Change study, argues that political leaders must abandon policies that shelter the wealthy on the one hand and dismantle state welfare provisions aiding the poorest families, on the other.

Black empowerment tests modern French civilisation
Unless positive action is taken, more than adding token “ethnic faces” to his cabinet, President Sarkozy’s tepid pleas for calm in Villiers-le-Bel is “merde” – pardon my French. Benign neglect will not stem the anger of the youth of the banlieues who are defiantly affirming “We are French citizens who will no longer put up with being deprived of our rights, and our freedom to be free”.

Thomas L Blair’s Pillars of Change: Racism, youth and France – a Guide for Change is published by Edition Blair, £5.50 plus p & p from see ; e-mail :